Tough night: just spent about two hours revising four pages of a key scene for my YA novel. I made the revisions by reading my draft aloud — it’s amazing what a difference this makes! When your tongue stumbles over the way a sentence flows (or doesn’t flow!), it’s a sure bet a that a reader will find it awkward as well. Reading aloud also helps you catch words that you may have repeated within a few sentences without realizing it. And when you read your work out loud, awkward phrases tend to jump out — which you can easily eliminate, rewrite, or reposition for smoother, more fluid sentences.
Why is reading aloud so helpful — and revealing? Mainly because, as William Zinsser says in On Writing Well, while readers read with their eyes, “actually, they hear what they are reading — in their inner ear — far more than you realize.” Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? As readers, we’ve all experienced the strong link between what our eye sees on the page and what we hear in our head.
That’s why sound, rhythm, and alliteration are beloved arrows in every strong writer’s quiver. My playwrighting coach suggested more than once to our class that we make it a point to read poetry every day, because of the tight, memorable way in which words, rhythm, and images are woven together. Note to myself: I need to remember to do this!
In The Elements of Style, E.B. White gives a great example of the importance of rhythm when he quotes Thomas Paine’s most famous sentence. It’s composed of eight words, each just one syllable long. You’re probably hearing them in your head right now: “These are the times that try men’s souls.” White rewrites it four ways: 1) Times like these try men’s souls; 2) How trying it is to live in these times!; 3) These are trying times for men’s souls; and 4) Soulwise, these are trying times. Not one of these four also-rans holds a candle to the original, does it? Our pal Paine knew all about writing dangerously!